AFC North: 2011 Season Wrap AFC

Ravens regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 5
Preseason Power Ranking: 8

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Rice's explosiveness and versatility made the Ravens' offense tick.
Biggest surprise: First-year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano vowed to "wreak havoc" when he took the job. But few could have imagined this drastic turnaround. Pagano went back to the aggressive blitzes that defined the Baltimore defense for a decade. The Ravens attacked quarterbacks and ripped the ball away from offenses. Pagano took over a defense that set a team record for fewest sacks in a season (27) and turned it into one that finished first in the AFC in sacks (48). Terrell Suggs led the pressure up front and is a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Lardarius Webb was the team's most improved player on defense as well as its best cornerback.

Biggest disappointment: The Ravens should be the top seed in the AFC and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after going undefeated for the first time at home and in the AFC North. But Baltimore fell shy of that goal because of a lack of focus. The Ravens struggled to beat the teams they were supposed to beat on the road. Baltimore went 2-4 away from home against teams that had a losing record at the time. The most embarrassing losses were at Jacksonville and Seattle. Sloppy play continually got the Ravens in trouble. In four road losses, Baltimore has taken the ball away twice while turning it over eight times (minus-six ratio).

Biggest need: Drafting Torrey Smith in the second round was a move in the right direction for Joe Flacco and the Baltimore passing attack. But the Ravens fell short of expectations, finishing 19th in passing and 20th in completions over 40 yards. The problem is a lack of playmakers who can stretch the field. Trading a fourth-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for Lee Evans looks like a mistake at this point. There is potential, however, with tight end Ed Dickson. Still, when LaQuan Williams is being used as a third receiver this year, that's a sign that the Ravens need more quality wide receivers.

Team MVP: Ray Rice's value can be measured by how the Ravens win games. In 12 victories this season, Rice has averaged 21 carries for 100.7 yards rushing. In four losses, he has averaged nine carries for 38.8 yards. Rice's strength is his vision and versatility. With the ability to beat defenses as a runner and a receiver, he produced an NFL-best 2,068 total yards and set a team record with 15 touchdowns. The Ravens wouldn't be the AFC's second seed if not for Rice's big plays.

Tough decision: Ray Lewis has slowed toward the end of the regular season, and it could either be age finally catching up to him (he's 36 years old) or the lingering effects of a toe injury. Whatever the reason, the Ravens have to seriously think about Lewis' role next season. He prides himself on being an every-down player, but it could be time to limit him on third downs to save the wear and tear on his body. This will be a sensitive issue moving forward.

Browns regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: No. 28
Preseason Power Ranking: No. 29

[+] EnlargePeyton Hillis
Jason Bridge/US PresswirePeyton Hillis' contract drama affected his play all season and his return to Cleveland is in doubt.
Biggest surprise: Cleveland changed defensive coordinators last offseason, going from the maverick ways of Rob Ryan to the calming influence of Dick Jauron. The style changed as well, from Ryan's frenetic schemes to Jauron's emphasis on fundamentals. The result: the Browns went from the 22nd-ranked defense in 2010 to the 10th-ranked this year. The yards and points went down and the sacks went up. The Browns allowed just 307 points this season, which is their lowest figure since allowing 301 in 2005. In Cleveland's four wins, the defense allowed an average of 12 points.

Biggest disappointment: Peyton Hillis went from being on the cover of the Madden video game to being the perfect example of what not to do in a contract season. The running back's frustrations over the lack of a new deal spilled onto the playing field, where his total yards dropped 56 percent from a year ago (1,654 to 717). It became a soap opera with Hillis this season when he missed a game on the advice of his agent because of strep throat, failed to show up for a scheduled appearance at a Halloween party for children, and got married in Arkansas instead of getting treatment at the Browns facility for his injured hamstring. It would be surprising to see the Browns invest a contract in Hillis after this year's antics.

Biggest need: The Browns desperately need offensive playmakers and lots of them. Their list includes: a strong-armed quarterback, a No. 1 receiver, a game-breaking running back and a big-play threat at tight end. It's easy to see why the Browns scored the third-fewest points in the NFL (13.6 points per game) under first-year coach Pat Shurmur. Cleveland produced only six pass plays for more than 40 yards (third-fewest in the league) and one run for that same distance. It seemed like the Browns ended up with more concussions than touchdowns this season.

Team MVP: The backbone of the NFL's second-ranked passing defense was cornerback Joe Haden. It was a breakout year for the seventh overall pick of the 2010 draft. He finished sixth in passes defensed and has the potential to be a shutdown corner. He didn't have an interception, but that will come if the Browns can increase the pressure on quarterbacks. Some would argue that linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is the Browns' MVP because he finished second in the NFL in tackles. But Cleveland allowed the third-most rushing yards in the league, which is a reflection of the middle linebacker.

Big decision: Look for the Browns to add a quarterback in the draft or free agency after Shumur said Colt McCoy will have to win the job next season. In his first full season as the starter, McCoy ranked 26th in completion percentage (57.2), 25th in passing yards per game (210.2), 32nd in yards per attempt (5.9) and 25th in passer rating (74.6). Some argue that McCoy's statistics are low because the Browns are tied for the most drops in the NFL (33), according to ESPN Stats & Information, and have struggled to protect him. Others say McCoy isn't a starting quarterback at this level because he lacks arm strength.

Bengals regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: No. 11
Preseason Power Ranking: No. 32

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesRookie quarterback Andy Dalton has led the Bengals back to the playoffs after Cincinnati finished 4-12 in the 2010 regular season.
Biggest surprise: When the Bengals drafted Andy Dalton in the second round, many thought he could develop into a starting quarterback despite his lack of ideal size and arm strength. Few expected a rookie out of Texas Christian to help turn around the four-win Bengals into a playoff team. He also became the first rookie in NFL history to throw for 20 touchdowns while winning eight or more games. Dalton's success led to a bigger surprise -- the Bengals were able to trade Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders for a first-round pick in 2012 and a conditional second-rounder in 2013.

Biggest disappointment: The Bengals made no secret how important Leon Hall was to their defense when they signed the former first-round cornerback to a four-year, $39 million extension before the season began. So, it was a devastating blow when he tore an Achilles tendon and was done for the season in Week 10. One of the more underrated corners in the NFL, Hall could be counted upon for tight man-to-man coverage. In seven games without Hall, the Bengals have allowed 12 touchdowns through the air and have made six interceptions.

Biggest need: The glaring need on offense is at guard, where Cincinnati is currently starting an undrafted player on the left side (Nate Livings) and an Eagles cast-off on the right (Mike McGlynn). It doesn't look like long-time anchor on the interior, Bobbie Williams, will return after a season-ending ankle injury. The Bengals are set at tackle with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, who was the most improved player on the team. Both are former high picks by the Bengals, which shows they can build an offensive line through the draft.

Team MVP: While some might point to Dalton, the most important -- as well as most feared -- player on the field for the Bengals has been wide receiver A.J. Green. He led all NFL rookies with 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. His 11 catches of 35 yards or more are the most in the league and the most by an NFL rookie since Minnesota’s Randy Moss had 14 in 1998. As a result, Green became the first rookie wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003.

Tough decision: With Cedric Benson as the running back, Cincinnati could always expect 1,000 yards rushing and six touchdowns. But you got the sense that the Bengals and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden were relying less and less on Benson by giving more carries to Bernard Scott. Cincinnati could continue its youth movement on offense and draft a starting running back or it could look at the free-agent market. It's a little bit of a gamble because Benson has been so consistent. It'll become apparent whether Benson is in the Bengals' future plans this offseason, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Steelers regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 6
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

[+] EnlargeAntonio Brown
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAntonio Brown emerged as Pittsburgh's biggest playmaker -- notching more than 1,000 yards in both returns and receptions.
Biggest surprise: The Steelers hoped to get an occasional spark out of Antonio Brown as the No. 3 receiver after he had 16 catches for 167 yards as a rookie. By the end of the season, he ended up being the team's hottest playmaker. A threat as a receiver and returner, Brown became the first player in NFL history to get 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season, which is why his teammates named him the Steelers' Most Valuable Player. Brown returned a punt for a game-clinching touchdown against Cincinnati and scored on a 79-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the fourth quarter against Cleveland. His breakout season ended with 69 receptions for 1,108 yards.

Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh has one of the best pass rushing combinations in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The problem is, they weren't on the field together for most of the season. An eye injury and an NFL suspension sidelined Harrison for five games, and a hamstring injury has caused Woodley to miss six. These edge rushers haven't completed a full game together since Sept. 25 at Indianapolis. The lack of a consistent pass rush and turnovers has been the weakness of the NFL's top-ranked defense. In Pittsburgh's four losses, the Steelers have totaled four sacks and one takeaway.

Biggest need: The offensive line has been a need for several seasons. Pittsburgh should be commended for patching up the line when it looked like it was falling apart earlier in the year. The re-signing of Max Starks stabilized the unit and moved struggling Jonathan Scott to the sideline. The Steelers also replaced penalty magnet Chris Kemoeatu with Doug Legursky. There's plenty of work to do if the Steelers want to improve the protection for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The only two starters that you can see being here for the next five seasons are Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who has steadily improved throughout his rookie season.

Team MVP: The Steelers voted Brown as their MVP, but the most irreplaceable player on the team is Roethlisberger. He carried the Steelers' pass-first offense with 4,077 yards, 21 touchdowns and a 63.2 completion rate. The impressive part is that Roethlisberger did this in pain, even surpassing his usual standard for playing with injuries. He sprained his foot (which required a metal plate in his shoe), broke his right thumb and then suffered a high-ankle sprain. This could go down as his best season in terms of heroics. Roethlisberger threw five touchdowns against Tennessee, out-dueled Tom Brady and beat Cleveland in the first meeting on one leg.

Big decision: The most intriguing question is whether the Steelers will part ways with Hines Ward after he became the eighth receiver in NFL history to reach 1,000 catches. He lost his 13-year starting job to the next generation of Pittsburgh wide receivers (Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders) and the 35-year-old receiver carries a big price tag over the next two years, when he is scheduled to make $4 million each season. Ward has made it clear that he doesn't plan to retire.

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